• 2007 Popular Mechanics Breakthrough AwardsThinking Big – Part 2

    • 2007 Popular Mechanics Breakthrough AwardsThinking Big - Part 2
    • 2007 Popular Mechanics Breakthrough AwardsThinking Big - Part 2
    • 2007 Popular Mechanics Breakthrough AwardsThinking Big - Part 2
    Date:30 November 2007 Tags:,

    Meet Amory Lovins, the prophet of efficiency and seven other visionary thinkers who are changing the world one bold idea at a time.

    The responsive arm
    “The human arm is a tall order,” says Stuart Harshbarger of Johns Hopkins University. “It can move at remarkable speeds. It’s silent and it heals itself.”

    Proto 2, the prosthetic arm being developed by Harshbarger and a team of 30 public and private partners, may not be as good as the real thing, but it’s narrowing the gap.

    Most myoelectric prosthetic arms move in three ways – they bend at the elbow and rotate at the wrist, and a rudimentary hand clamps shut. The team’s initial Proto 1 device boosted that figure to seven. The Proto 2 allows for 27 different kinds of movement, including individual finger bending. Whereas other myoelectric arms operate in response to muscle movements, the Proto 2 is wired directly to residual nerve fibres: One controls the device merely by thinking.

    Most remarkably, users can feel with the new arm – 80 sensors in the fingertips and palm send signals racing back to the brain. Says Harshbarger, “It’s hard not to get emotional about the progress we’ve made.”

    The non-turbine wine alternative
    Working in Haiti, Shawn Frayne, a 28-year-old inventor, saw the need for small-scale wind power to juice LED lamps and radios in the homes of the poor. Conventional wind turbines don’t scale down well – there’s too much friction in the gearbox and other components. “With rotary power, there’s nothing out there that generates under 50 watts,” Frayne says. So he took a new tack, studying the way vibrations caused by the wind led to the collapse in 1940 of Washington’s Tacoma Narrows Bridge (aka Galloping Gertie). Frayne’s device, which he calls a Windbelt, is a taut membrane fitted with a pair of magnets that oscillate between metal coils. Prototypes have generated 40 milliwatts in 15 km/h slivers of wind, making his device 10 to 30 times as efficient as the best microturbines. Frayne envisions the Windbelt costing a few dollars and replacing paraffin lamps in Haitian homes. “Paraffin is smoky and it’s a fire hazard,” says Peter Haas, founder of the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, which helps people in developing countries to get environmentally sound access to clean water, sanitation and energy. “If Shawn’s innovation breaks, locals can fix it. If a solar panel breaks, the family is out a panel.”

    Frayne hopes to help fund third-world distribution of his Windbelt with revenue from first-world applications – such as replacing the batteries used to power temperature and humidity sensors in buildings. “There’s not a huge amount of innovation being done for people making R15 to R30 a day,” Haas says. “Shawn’s work is definitely needed.”

    The high-efficiency stove
    An estimated 2,2 million refugees huddle in makeshift camps in the Darfur region of western Sudan. In the camps, they are safe, but they cook their meals over inefficient wood fires, and as already scant forests are depleted they must venture ever farther to gather fuel – up to 15 km in some cases. Away from camp, the men risk being killed and the women raped or mutilated by the Janjaweed militia.

    When a program officer from the US Agency for International Development asked Ashok Gadgil, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, to help solve the problem, Gadgil recruited LBNL colleague Christina Galitsky, an environmental energy researcher. Together they travelled to Darfur to meet the refugees and learn about their cooking needs. Back at LBNL, they and a team of students developed a high-efficiency stove made of inexpensive sheetmetal.

    There’s nothing high-tech about it – a few pieces of bent metal and a cast-iron grate improve combustion and energy transfer – but it uses from a half to three-quarters less wood than a cooking fire, slashing the time refugees need to spend in heightened danger. The stoves fit local cookware, and shield flames from the region’s strong winds.

    Each stove costs about R100 and should last about five years. “We have not invented something altogether new,” Gadgil says, “but we have tuned the technology to work with the refugees.”

    Clean water (Next Generation Award)
    Parkersburg, West Virginia, is a city of 33 000 on the Ohio River. For decades, a DuPont plant 11 km upstream has polluted the local waters with ammonium perfluorooctanoate (APFO), a surfactant used to make Teflon. As debate raged about possible health effects, Parkersburg South High School student Kelydra Welcker, now an 18-year-old university freshman, took action. “There was little being done to discover ways to remove this chemical from the environment,” Welcker says. “I knew there had to be a solution, and I wanted to be part of it.”

    She devised a simple test for the presence of the chemical in water, which involved measuring the foam on a shaken sample of boiled water. Then, using hand-me-down chemistry equipment in a makeshift lab set up in a trailer behind her house, Welcker developed a way to remove APFO from water by combining granular activated carbon, the stuff that cleans fish tanks, and electrosorption, which draws remaining APFO ions to a pair of electrodes. She has made a desktop unit for treating small quantities of domestic drinking water, and she hopes the local utility company – with assistance from DuPont – will scale up her technique to treat water on a community-wide basis.

    “I hope people understand that science isn’t just people in white lab coats speaking gibberish,” says Welcker, who has been winning science awards since she was 13. “Scientists are real people who want to make a positive impact on their world.